Martine Syms has popped out for lunch, taking a break from the installation of her latest solo show, Present Goo, at Sadie Coles’ gallery in posh Mayfair, London. For any artist, it’s a stressful race against the clock. Which painting looks better under what light? Is the sculpture off-centre? Wait – the walls are throwing it all off. Take ’em down!
So, for now, the space is free of punters, bar the gallery’s team of staff typing away in an office next door – and, among the ladders, exposed wires, drills and the odd crate, lies Syms’ new body of work.
Behind the works, the walls are painted a sickly yellow, as acerbic as a teaspoon of Coleman’s. It’s visceral and, strangely, human – although the colour conjures up a sick one, potentially on a deathbed, or suffering from a queasy hangover. It is, it will turn out, exactly how Syms wanted it.
“Hello! How are you?” Syms walks back in through the door, smiles and sticks out her hand, having just returned from a “cute little Georgian cafe down the road”.
Perhaps it’s the Californian in her – Syms was born, brought up and home-schooled in Los Angeles’ Altadena suburb – but she revokes any preconceived idea of a frantic artist on a pressing deadline. The gallery is still, understandably, a bit of a mess, though the majority of her work is hung up, and tonight she’ll be welcoming a slew of critics, journalists, friends and family to this new solo show. And yet Syms remains cool and calm, wearing a floaty, printed shirt, her hair long and coloured off-red.
“There’s always something unexpected [happening], but it’s to be expected, you know?” Syms says of this final 24 hours before showtime proper. “I feel pretty chill. I feel good about all the work, I know where everything’s going. So it’s not too nerve-wracking.”
We walk up the stairs to the back end of the top floor where a large, grand desk takes up the corner of a grey concrete room. “I guess people often sit here and take photos for Instagram,” Syms says, observing the room that, with the right angle, could make for a grid post captioned “step into my office”. Before we dive into our chat, it turns out Syms has already given a clue of one of the exhibition’s themes: modern-day surveillance.
This week, the 36-year-old artist has travelled from her home in LA to take over the two-storey space. Since 2014, Syms has exhibited in cities including New York, Chicago, Vienna and Porto, Portugal. This is her sixth London show; the first was 2016’s voyeuristic, character-driven solo show Martine Syms: Fact & Trouble at the ICA. During those in-between years, she’s become – and please excuse the cliché – an artist of her generation.
Syms’ work is a sign of the times: a gritty, darkly humorous approach to social commentary. And during a time when we’re but a ding! notification away from the latest anxiety, Syms’ work challenges injustice. That could be ongoing police brutality, everyday sexism or the systemic oppression of Black women in the United States – but she turns these topics into art that carries a similar casual flow to a chat one would have with a friend. Now, in Present Goo, she’s exploring notions of humanity – the footprints we leave behind, social media, immediacy and conspicuous consumption.
“I’ve been questioning presence,” Syms says. “I don’t know if that’s so political, but definitely something about humanity. The yellow [on the walls] to me was really supposed to be like this kind of stomach bile, [evoking the] solar plexus – very physical and bodily, but all the while thinking about liberation.”
If Syms’ themes were interpreted by most of her contemporaries, the subjects would become a heavy depiction of the political zeitgeist – one entrenched in deep-rooted racism, faltering governments and economic decline. But left in her hands, it’s work that speaks to a generation of meme-makers and internet aficionados. The heaviness is there, no doubt about it. But its wink-nudge tone is undeniably, playfully youthful.
“I have a really dry…”
“Yes! Naughty sense of humour,” Syms says, letting out a mighty laugh. “That is how I see the world, in a way. Something happens and I’m always looking to another person to be like: ‘You saw that, right?’ I feel like people are still very much processing a lot of what has happened, and an incomprehensible amount of death.”
Syms doesn’t clarify what she means here. But given her past influences from the news, tech and mass-media headlines, it’s likely she’s referring to the pandemic, the global Black Lives Matter protests and the surge of anti-LGBTQ+ and police violence in the US and UK. All of which are threaded through her narratives – though, of course, never explicitly.
“In the same moments as you can be grieving, something sort of stupid can happen that makes you laugh, and that’s part of the experience of life,” she adds.
Present Goo is Syms all over: oversized text, grainy footage and pop culture references. On the second floor is a video piece presented in a circular screen, like a CCTV lens, that flicks through lo-fi photos captured on an iPhone: a couple winning $10,000 at an LA Clippers basketball game, a close-up of a birthday cake, tarot cards laid out on a table, a “HELL IS REAL” billboard. As the video quickly flicks through the content, it feels like a run-down of a stranger’s life.
“In the video, I suppose desire or wanting becomes this undercurrent driver of narrative, or almost like the poetics of the monologue. But also, of course, desire is not everything, and I think that’s something we’re becoming really aware of – that greed we’re encountering.”
The gallery’s setting, then, feels like the perfectly contrary context for the artist’s narrative. Only a few roads down is Bond Street, home to some of the most exclusive luxury fashion stores, sports cars parked outside and, often, influencers taking photos of their #outfitoftheday.
IN the first half of 2023, Syms enrolled in acting classes and, as part of character development in workshops, she was thinking about the needs and wants of her various roles. “When I was working on the video, initially, it was happening subconsciously. But I knew I wanted to use these ‘wants’ from the exercise that we did,” Syms explains. “I started to really go with that. Not only is there anxiety and an endlessness to it, but there’s a psychological need [we have]: want, greed, anxiety that comes with comparison and, quote unquote, failure.”
While Syms’ new work is a mirror held up to us, mostly walking down the street hunched over our iPhones, sharing videos over WhatsApp and capturing, and sharing content quicker than ever before, there are tender, personal moments in the show, too.
The artist has never been afraid of placing herself in her work. In Present Goo, a blurry, semi-nude selfie is enlarged on a print in one corner. The wall opposite features three canvases of what appears to be an internal monologue, with lines such as “I cried reading today”. Some are more revealing: “This morning I thought the next time we speak I’ll ask ‘do you want to get back together very casually’”. Then, the open-ended “update: I’m in love with”, perhaps left as a cliffhanger for Syms’ next chapter.
Even in these more personal moments, the appeal of Syms’ work lies in its humanity. We’re all victims of a scatty, endless thought-train, we all cry, and want to get back with (some of) our exes. And, yes, hidden in the backend of our Spotify, a “break-up playlist”. Though most of us aren’t ballsy enough to share that on our Instagrams, let alone a 10 feet tall sheet of paper.
Martine Syms: Present Goo is on display at Sadie Coles, 1 Davies Street, London W1K 3DB. Free admission